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The 3 pitfalls that trap sustainability leaders — and how to avoid them

No one can achieve goals alone. Here's how to avoid three mistakes that distance our would-be allies.

In my conversations with sustainability leaders throughout the years, I’ve heard varying views on what works to engage others — whether it be employees, CEOs, shareholders or your neighbor — in a productive exchange about how to build a more sustainable world.

I’ve also heard stories about what doesn’t work. Too often, well-meaning leaders try to turn the dial on sustainability within their companies, organizations or communities, but unknowingly succumb to common conversational pitfalls, undermining their hard work and good intentions.

That dilemma was the subject of a recent working paper, “Authentic Sustainability: Navigating Pitfalls, Paradoxes, and Pathways in Conversations toward a Better World,” co-written by Gabriel Grant, a doctoral candidate in leadership and sustainability at the Yale School of Forestry and Environment, and Jason Jay, director of the sustainability initiative at the MIT Sloan School of Management.  I met Grant at the GreenBiz Forum 2015, where we entered into an interesting conversation and meeting of the minds.

Grant and Jay’s work explores sustainability conversations that tend to get “stuck” in inaction, and presents ways to work around those traps to build the leadership and communications skills needed to carry effective conversations with various stakeholders.

Pitfall #1: Conversations in the language of “Others should …”

Pathway: Create a culture of acknowledgement and making authentic commitments

Often, said Grant and Jay, people have recurring conversations about sustainability that aren’t producing the results they want, many of which share a theme of what “should” be done: “Companies should invest in XYZ sustainability program because it’s the right thing to do”; “Employees should recycle at work because we all need to do our part to help save the environment”; “Shareholders should support a company’s sustainability goals because it’s how they can make a difference.”

That “should” language never works — ask anyone who’s been told or tells their kids to eat their vegetables.

To effectively engage and motivate authentic sustainable behaviors among colleagues, an alternative pathway forward is to first acknowledge the contributions that others already have made. Empower them and position oneself as there to help. In other words, “You should recycle” turns into “I noticed you printed double-sided; that’s great. Is there anything else like that you’d like to systematize at the office? I can help you make it happen.”

“Our sustainability movement today falls short of being a culture of acknowledgement,” said Grant. “We tend to be really good at making everyone wrong around us, but that doesn’t inspire others to join our cause, and in many instances creates the opposite effect.”

Others will be more willing to engage if you partner with them instead of point the “should” finger at them. Even better, Grant and Jay said making your own authentic commitments tends to be more effective at creating results than entertaining "should" conversations.

Pitfall #2: Problem-solving

Pathways: Envisioning what we really want and inviting others to do the same

Another pitfall common among sustainability conversations is the notion that sustainability is about solving problems rather than creating possibilities. When sustainability discourse purely focuses on our global environmental and social problems (resource scarcity, poverty, drought) — conversations hinge on “minimizing unsustainability.” The focus here is on survival, and the approach is rooted in scarcity.

Instead of aiming to survive, Grant invited us to thrive. Informed by the work of positive psychology and positive organizational scholarship, Grant suggested sustainability can be framed as an opportunity to expand possibilities, motivate and inspire. He added that positioning sustainability in the realm of possibility is more likely to ignite people’s creativity and create opportunities for deep learning rather than inspiring them to dig in and defend the status quo.

“Sustainability is often articulated as great threats to humanity, but it’s also perhaps the ultimate opportunity to express our humanity. Focusing on the threat rather than the opportunity leaves people paralyzed rather than inspired to contribute,” said Grant.

This reminds me of an Albert Einstein quote: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” Sustainability, then, might transcend the current crisis and scarcity paradigm and focus on the possibility of creating a flourishing future.

A sustainability leader in a corporation, for example, could be better served by approaching sustainability as a contribution toward creating what we want to exist, rather than as a means to solve problems or diminish what we don’t want. This way, employees may view sustainability as an opportunity to create and contribute (rather than ending what they’re doing wrong). This approach is more likely to create the experience of self-determination, flourishing and support innovation at the employee level.

Pitfall #3: Seeing the forest or the trees

Pathway: Express our own ambivalence as an invitation to others to express their own

Another common tendency is to communicate sustainability as competing objectives: the health of our business vs. the health of all society, human life vs. all life, my own flourishing vs the flourishing of others, etc. That simple competing objective framework tends to be polarizing and creates an unhealthy stress for people along the sustainability journey.  We are in nested systems of parts and wholes, and the flourishing of each part is both at odds with and bound up in the flourishing of the whole. Grant and Jay called this these “part-whole paradoxes of sustainability.”

Our tendency is to try to simplify the complexity at hand by collapsing paradoxes into a competing objective framework and to say that one objective is the right objective. “I’m for the flourishing of our team; it’s those self-interested teammates who are the problem”; alternatively, “I need to stick up for myself because the company doesn’t really care about me.” “The truth is we’re all ambivalent. We all want both,” said Grant.

Allowing people to express their simultaneous desire for their own flourishing and the flourishing of the whole is a much healthier experience than picking a right and wrong objective and denying one side of our own self-expression. Standing for both at the same time is where the beautiful innovation happens and where people tend to come alive.

Grant said sustainability leaders are graceful facilitators of ambivalence; they create conversations, cultures and structures in their organizations that powerfully hold would-be contradictory objectives as healthy drivers or creative tension at the heart of the people and the organization. The experience of being in that tension, when powerfully expressed, gives people meaning and purpose and creates the conditions in which innovation can occur.

When collapsed or not expressed, the same tensions lead to suffering, burnout, isolation and resignation. If I can have a conversation with my boss questioning whether our company makes a net contribution to the world, I’m more likely to be flourishing at work than I would avoiding that conversation with my boss and having it alone with myself.

Charting a smarter path

As a recruiter, what I find interesting about Grant and Jay’s work is that it prepares would-be sustainability champions within organizations to effectively talk about sustainability with key stakeholders that need to be brought on board to create meaningful change. The framework creates the space for anyone to step in and contribute, rather than inspiring people to defend the status quo.

With these pointers on hand, leaders can steer clear of postures and language that can stymie sustainable progress, and create pathways that bring us all closer to building a better world.

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